The Value of Ethical Leadership

On the occasion of the launch of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program, a new effort for which I’m the director at the Ted Rogers School of Management, I want to take some time to talk a little bit about the program and ethical leadership.

At the program we’re aiming to go beyond the “mom and apple pie” aspects of ethical leadership, to look not just at the values and skills of ethical leaders, but also at the particular institutional mechanisms that ethical leaders use to shape institutional culture and to put their vision into practice throughout business organizations.

Leaders are by their very nature fascinating people. The news is replete with stories of the victories and foibles of leaders in the worlds of business and politics and entertainment. From an ethical point of view, the decisions they make and the values to which they subscribe are disproportionately important. Not only do they make crucial decisions, but they influence the decisions of others, both directly through the instructions they give and indirectly through the examples they set and the atmosphere they foster.

So ethical leadership is a compelling issue—even among those who don’t bother to think critically about the topic. It is all too tempting to think of ethical leadership as a question only for CEOs or for top-tier executives. And while I have high hopes and high expectations of my undergrad business students, not all of them will go on to leadership positions at that level. But what I’ve been teaching my students is this: leadership is an activity that goes on at all levels of a business organization. Whether you’re leading a publishing empire or a small sales team, you face the challenges implied by the term “ethical leadership.” You are faced with not just doing the right thing, but also with helping others to do the right thing and building organizational contexts that will foster people in doing the right thing.

The question, of course, is whether a program like ours can make a difference. And I think it can. And the reason has to do with how I understand the goal of ethics education itself.

I’ve long argued that an ethics course at a business school isn’t designed to make you into an ethical person, to teach you to be good. If making you ethical was the aim, then ethics education would be either redundant or hopeless: critics are probably right to think that a basic understanding of right and wrong is either there by the time kids enter university or it isn’t.

Ethics courses should assume a basic desire to do the right thing, and focus on giving students the ability to understand the special kinds of ethical issues that arise in business, along with the tools of teamwork and leadership that let them put their ethical understanding into action.

Students don’t come to business school to be educated on how to be employees. They come to learn how to be managers, and a manager with vision is what we call a leader.

8 comments so far

  1. Jim Sabin on

    Hi Chris –
    Congratulations to Ryerson for launching this excellent-sounding program and for snagging you to lead it!
    I agree that we should assume that graduate business students or, in my case, medical students, want to do the right thing, and that our job is helping them understand the lay of the land with regard to the ethical issues they will encounter. In my view there’s a lot of overlap with areas like organizational development and motivational psychology for building skills for supporting others in ethical conduct. But I’m persuaded by Albert Schweitzer’s comment that “example is not the main thing in influencing others…it is the only thing.” “Only” may be a bit extreme, but when I think of the leaders of organizations I’ve been part of, it’s the example of their conduct that sticks with me.
    I look forward to learning about how the program evolves as you develop it.

  2. Dominique O'Rourke on

    Bravo! With a crisis in trust across organizations globally, ethics is at the heart of restoring trust – the lubricant of all transactions. We need to see it as a corporate imperative, as key risk management and as a practice that can be applied with the same rigour a as accounting or project management. A great place to start are the 10 ethical principles of analysis (Hosmer, 1995). I’ve paraphrased them here

    Congratulations on the launch of your program and all the best in your new leadership capacity.

  3. Sebastian on

    Wouldn’t it be better to simply teach law? What business ethics really teach us is nothing more than this is right if you think this way etc. but if it doesn’t teach us how to be good, then what does it teach us that we can have of value? Our moral compass lies within ourselves and will not be taught in a business ethics class. Ethic students will be ethic no matter what`. So what if you taught more about law, what is right and wrong?

  4. Theodore Petrara on

    Chris-of course that is the answer. Law is about what is or is not legal. However, I pose another question–is it ‘ethical’ to do the ethical thing if indeed that thing is against the law?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Well, sometimes, but only in special cases. There is generally a strong ethical obligation to follow the law. Exceptions have to be thought through very carefully, especially to avoid self-serving rationalization.

  5. mark on

    If you are a leader, and are ethical, that is something that you are, not something you can teach. If you charge to teach these principles, it still won’t work.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Mark: Thanks for your comment, but it doesn’t seem that you actually read the blog entry all the way through.
      Beyond that, why do you think there are no aspects of ethical leadership that can be taught? Do we spring from the womb knowing how to lead people in complex organizational contexts?

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